El Sung Na: Enchanting Tales of Animals an Aspirations

Two-page spread from “The Dreamer” by Il Sung Na (courtesy of the artist and Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2018)

Vivid childhood memories are a creative wellspring for award-winning children’s book author Il Sung Na, who arrived in Kansas City five years ago to teach illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Author and illustrator of a dozen children’s books and illustrator for three more by other authors, Na conceived his first book, “A Book of Sleep,” while a student at Kingston University in London, where he moved from his native South Korea in 2001 to earn a B.F.A. in illustration and animation.

Inspired by the children’s books he encountered in a London bookstore, “I turned every assignment into a book format,” he said in a recent interview. “I did dummies every year and one became my first book. I loved the format — 32 pages, typically. I thought I could do 32-page storytelling.”

Na recalls staying up late on the assignment that led to “A Book of Sleep,” which became his B.F.A. thesis project. “I start with questions that I want to hear answers to,” he said. Wondering about how animals sleep, he researched the topic and translated his findings into a soothing bedtime story.

When representatives from Meadowside Children’s Books in London saw Na’s “Sleep” illustrations in an exhibit at the school, they offered him a two-book contract. Originally published in London in 2007, “A Book of Sleep” went on to draw critical praise for its inventive, textured images of sleeping koalas, elephants, giraffes and whales — and the wide-awake owl who presides over the story.

With its personable animals endowed with the behaviors, aspirations and vulnerabilities of people, “A Book of Sleep” established the hallmarks of Na’s early style.

“The Dreamer,” inspired by the artist’s own dream “of placing beautiful books in readers’ hands,” is a masterpiece that mounts a clever challenge to the idiom “when pigs fly.”

Na’s pig, a tubby green fellow wearing blue pants and red shoes, dreams of flying, and after much experimentation and research that involves consulting with birds and voluminous mathematical calculations, he constructs a flying machine. Cheered on by a hilarious cadre of animal friends — one of the fetching vignettes that are a Na specialty — including a pink elephant, numerous birds, and a fanciful quasi-equine creature with a sharp-toothed smile, he eventually succeeds.

As a child, Na loved cartoons and animation, especially the Disney animations his father introduced him to. “I grew up with pictures,” Na said; he also loved to draw. He remembers being a very shy child, a trait he explored in the 2017 book “Bird Balloon Bear.”

The title encompasses a bird who wants to befriend a bear but is too shy to approach him, and a red balloon that captivates the bear’s attention until it bursts, an event which brings the bird and the bear together. “Kirkus Reviews” called the book “as simple and soft as a hug — and as reassuring.”

Earlier this year, Na showed his illustrations for Hope Lim’s 2021 book “My Tree” in the “Beautiful World(s): KCAI Biennial” exhibit at H&R Block Artspace. Na tapped into his own experience of losing a favorite tree and included his little dog Lulu in his illustrations for Lim’s tale of an immigrant South Korean boy’s love and eventual loss of the plum tree in his yard in America, which reminded him of home. Representing his first venture into fully digital illustrations, “My Tree” earned Na the Winning Illustrator Award at the 2022 Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

For more about the artist, www.ilsungna.com

Cover and images from “A Book of Sleep” (courtesy of the artist and Random House, 2009)

Cover and images from “Bird Bear Balloon” (courtesy of the artist and Random House, 2017)

Cover and image from “The Dreamer” (courtesy of the artist and Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2018)

Cover and images from “My Tree” (courtesy of the artist and Holiday House, 2021)

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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